Sanctuary

For a century this inner-city church has served as a refuge. But its most important mission has always been outside the walls.

Barry Staten, a forty-year-old ex-convict, was now the church's youth leadership program director. If there was a true tug-of-war at Agape, it was the pastor and God on one side pulling against the devils that had tormented Barry since childhood. There was so much promise in Barry; in his heart, Woolfolk knew, were all the possibilities for these kids' futures--if he could just defeat his own past.

But guiding Barry was like holding on to the strings of a kite. Sometimes he flew so high, only to plunge back toward earth with frightening speed. In fact, Barry had just returned to the church from a five-week hiatus after walking away from his responsibilities physically and emotionally spent.

The pastor still didn't know if Barry would make it. But he hoped so. The children loved Barry and needed him.

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Kneeling next to Barry at the railing that morning was an eight-year-old boy whose five-year-old sister had been raped, stabbed to death and thrown into a dumpster by a friend of the youngsters' crack-addicted parents. If children like this little boy were to have any chance, Barry, or someone very much like him, would have to be there to pull him away from the streets.

Woolfolk placed his hand on Barry's bowed, braided head. "We pray for Barry, Lord. Keep him steadfast," the pastor shouted.

"Thank you, Jesus," a tiny old woman in the back row cried, her eyes squeezed tight, her arms outstretched in supplication.

"Help him fight the good fight."
The woman began to clap. "That's right, brother."
"Lead him to do your will," Woolfolk beseeched, "as he works to save our youth from the gangs, and help him reach out to the babies who are having babies."

Tears were now rolling down the old woman's cheeks. "Thank you, Lord!" she yelled. "Thank you, Jesus!"

"Amen," said Barry, as he draped his arm protectively around the little boy's shoulders.

In 1866 three German immigrants living in Denver--Conrad Frick, Henry Reitze and Friederich Gamer--wrote to the Reverend Philip Kuhl in Warrenton, Missouri, asking that a German-speaking preacher be sent to the wild and woolly frontier town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

Nothing happened for several years. But then, in October 1872, the hierarchy of the German Methodist church based in Nebraska appointed Kuhl himself to establish a mission in Denver. A few weeks later the pastor and his family arrived to no church, no parsonage, no membership, no salary. What they found was a city whose dirt streets were still traveled by "wild" Indians, wayward miners, gun-toting card sharks, whores... and a handful of "loyal and determined" German Methodists, eager to hear the word of God preached in the language of the fatherland. Together these immigrants and Kuhl formed the First German Methodist Society of Denver.

"Methodist was the church of the American frontier," says Paul Millette, the librarian at the Iliff School of Theology on the University of Denver campus. "They were usually the first clergy to arrive in any settlement as the frontier expanded westward.

"As each ethnic wave came to this country and then moved west, it was often the only church they found. The Methodists were also aggressive evangelists in Europe at the time, so even though most Germans were Lutheran or Catholic, there were also Germans who already belonged to the church...just as there were Italian Methodists, Swedish Methodists, even Japanese Methodists."

The first minister of record in Colorado was a Methodist Episcopal lay preacher who conducted services in 1859 in a double log cabin owned by two gamblers. "During the religious services at one end of the cabin, gambling was going on unabated at the other end," wrote a member of that small congregation.

Millette pulls a large, worn book from a box: the original records of those first German Methodists in Denver. In it are the names of the congregants, many of whom would go on to establish some of Denver's most prominent families. There is also the mundane reporting of church events--baptisms, weddings, funerals--all written in German, plus a few business documents recorded in English.

The Methodists, a denomination developed in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, were smart in their evangelizing. They recognized that people were more comfortable adapting to new theology if it was presented in their own language and by ministers from the same culture. Methodist churches were often organized by nationality, and even by race in the case of the African Methodist Episcopal churches (such as the Shorter Community A.M.E. Church, founded in Denver in 1868, the second-oldest black church in Denver after Zion Baptist, which was established in 1865).

The immigrant church in America was much more than a place to go for spiritual communion. It was the contact point for all sorts of services--from employment to shelter to social centers. These churches kept native languages and cultural heritages alive as each succeeding generation merged further into the general population.

The German Methodists in Denver were an industrious lot. Mostly blue-collar workers, within a year of Kuhl's arrival they had pooled enough money to purchase two lots on the corner of Arapahoe and 18th streets, where they built a small church and parsonage. By 1884 the congregation had grown to 89 members. Needing more room, they voted to sell their church--which they did for $25,000--and built a new structure on the northwest corner of 25th and California.

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